Tag Archives: Fernando Cabrera

With Member Items Reform, Mark-Viverito Creates Distance from Quinn

By myself and Nick PowellPublished in City & State

One Speaker’s power grab is the next Speaker’s platform for reform.

The New York City Council’s annual practice of handing out discretionary funds to nonprofit organizations and other local groups has long been a point of contentious debate, both within city government and among good-government organizations. Some say the process is ripe for corruption and abuse, while others argue that member items are an effective mechanism for funding organizations that provide vital community services.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Council can take a step toward ensuring more equitability in the member items system, one part of Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s proposed sweeping rules reform package that will receive a public hearing before the Council’s Rule Committee. The member items section calls for all discretionary spending given to City Council members to be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.”

All 51 members of the Council receive discretionary funds each year that go toward “local initiatives”— i.e., nonprofit and community-based organizations—with the exact amount determined by various factors but never less than $80,000 per district.

The changes to the formula will include making equal the distribution of core member item amounts—“core” being those that go toward local organizations, as well as those that serve children or seniors. There will also be a needs-based increase to Council members based on the number of people in poverty in their respective districts, which could add up to 25 percent of a Council member’s core discretionary amount for antipoverty efforts.

The most momentous member items change, however, is to the Speaker’s power over her own pot of discretionary funds—dubbed the “Speaker’s List”—which funds organizations that provide services that exceed the amount an individual member can fund, or that serve a larger geographical area than a single Council district. Under the new rules, the Speaker would no longer have the authority to decide how much of the discretionary funding each Council member is given to distribute to local organizations and projects each year—a privilege the previous Speaker, Christine Quinn, had been accused of abusing, according to current and former Council members. Instead, the Speaker’s List will be limited to 50 percent of total discretionary member expense allocations.

“We will take the politics out of member items,“ said Mark-Viverito when she announced the rules change proposal.

Unfairly or not, there was a widespread perception that Quinn used her pot of discretionary funds as a means to punish recalcitrant members and reward the fealty of others. Tony Avella, a former Councilman who is now a state senator, told City & State last year that because of his outspoken behavior, Quinn had denied him member items as a means of retaliation.

A July 2011 member items analysis issued by then Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer (now the city comptroller) reinforced this notion, finding significant disparities in member item allocations across the city’s Council districts. For instance, former Councilman Domenic Recchia, an ally of Quinn’s, received the most dollars in member items from the Speaker: $1,630,064. On the flip side, former Councilman Charles Barron, one of Quinn’s most vocal detractors, received the third-lowest amount: $399,464.

“Personally, the prior Speaker was very vindictive, punitive, and denied the constituents of a district their fare share, so if you did not take the same position as the Speaker, you were punished … money went to persons who lived in those districts who had residents in their district who gave graciously and abundantly to the Speaker,” said Councilwoman Inez Barron, who took over the Council seat of her husband, Charles, after he was term-limited out of office.

Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who served under Quinn as well, agreed with Barron’s assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of the proposed rule changes.  “I represent the fifth-poorest district in the entire city and if you look at the allocations… [the] cost of speaking up on certain issues that differed with the previous Speaker was [being] penalized—and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”

To be fair, many of the transparency reforms to the member items process that Mark-Viverito has floated largely piggyback on reforms Quinn had already put in place. Quinn made sure that the Schedule C form, which lists those organizations applying for Council discretionary funds, was made public, along with the name of the member who sponsors each item and the amount and stated purpose of the funding. The reforms under Quinn also required applications and allocations for member items funding to be searchable through the Council’s website.

Mark-Viverito’s proposal builds on those measures by adding discretionary spending awards to the city’s Open Data Plan; creating new “open data” requirements to facilitate the searching and downloading of discretionary spending awards; and requiring discretionary fund grantees to provide a short report on their use of the money.

Mark-Viverito has made a concerted effort to distance herself from her predecessor since taking over the Speaker post in January, aiming to fashion herself a consensus builder in the chamber. Her first major legislative initiative, an expansion of the paid sick leave law—which Quinn bottled up in the Council before relenting and passing it last year while running for mayor—passed overwhelmingly. With member items reform on the table, Mark-Viverito can potentially close another controversial chapter of Quinn’s tenure.

Interestingly, Mark-Viverito, one of the first four Council members to pilot participatory budgeting back in 2011, did not include institutional support for PB as part of her package of rules reforms, even though she had previously been in favor of doing so. Participatory budgeting is a method currently being employed by a handful of Council members to promote civic engagement in their communities. The residents of districts represented by Council members who choose to participate in PB are allocated a portion of their members’ discretionary funds to vote on how they would like it to be distributed.

“The idea of getting the institutional support from the Council as a body to really create a more uniform process [for participatory budgeting] that would be applicable at a citywide level—and those of us that are doing it would advocate for it too—that brings visibility and accountability,” Mark-Viverito told City & State in August.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed member items reforms will satisfy Mayor Bill de Blasio and several good-government organizations that have called for discretionary funding to be banned outright. Through statements, the mayor has reiterated his stance that member items should be eliminated, yet the Council does not need the mayor’s approval to change its rules.

The proposed changes also offer Mark-Viverito an opportunity to contest the notion that she is too close with the mayor politically—a criticism that was also leveled at Quinn for her relationship with former mayor Michael Bloomberg. For her part, Mark-Viverito was confident the reforms she laid out would be enough to win over Mayor de Blasio.

“We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts,” said Mark-Viverito. “These go to organizations that employ locally, that provide very grassroots community-based services … so we’re going to continue to make that case, and that’s what’s going to be part of our conversation with the mayor.”

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Filed under Christine Quinn, Inez Barron, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Member Item Reform, Money

City Council Speaker Announces Rules Reform, Changes to Discretionary Item Funding

On Tuesday afternoon, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced a sweeping rules reform package that included changes to member discretionary allocation for over $50 million given to the City Council to spend annually. In the proposed reforms, all discretionary spending given to City Council members will be allocated based on a “fair, objective formula that is publicly disclosed.”  That formula will include a base amount given to every City Council member, and an increase based on the number of people living in poverty in their district. The Speaker’s own discretionary funding will be limited to 50% of total discretionary member expense allocations.

Beyond the money, there will be new open data requirements for discretionary spending, the creation of a dedicated legislative drafting unit to draft legislation requested by members, a plain-language summary of bills, a written attendance policy, and a “supermajority bill sponsorship” that would require bills with 34 co-sponsors to have a Committee decide whether or not to hold a hearing.

These are major changes, and what some see as a response to the politically-motivated allocation practices of former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

The mood in the City Council’s Red Room was celebratory, with many Council Members thanking Speaker Mark-Viverito for making good on her election promises, and seemingly acting against her own self-interest allocate the money.  “This process began last fall when 34 new and returning members signed onto a platform calling for significant reforms to the Council’s rules,” said Mark-Viverito.  “What followed was an exhaustive and comprehensive top to bottom look on the Councils’ existing rules…we engaged with members so the public, good government groups… and we did a public hearing where we took hours of testimony on best practices.”

“We will take the politics out of member items,“ she said.

Councilman Brad Lander, Chair of the Rules Committee that helped develop the reforms,  (and who later in the day turned his blazer inside-out in support of Clippers players) was ebullient.  “I challenge the press and the historian here to find any set of reforms that’s more bold and comprehensive and moves the Council forward towards good government in any point in it’s history.”

Inez Barron, for her part, spoke about the Fresh Democracy Council in 2002 that tried to introduce rule reforms.  “The problem was that those that were pushed through and accepted were not embraced and not implemented, because the Speaker at that time did not embrace it. “  After the press conference, Barron was very forthcoming with her opinions about former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who removed former Councilman Charles Barron (Inez’s husband) from the Committee on Higher Education.

“Personally, the prior speaker was very vindictive, punitive, and denied the constituents of a district their fare share, so if you did not take the same position as the Speaker, you were punished…  money went to persons who lived in those districts who had residents in their district who gave graciously and abundantly to the Speaker. So it was a reflection more of a political debt in terms of financial support …My predecessor Councilmember Charles Barron [Councilwoman Barron’s husband] didn’t get as much from the speaker, but he was resourceful enough and persistent enough to reach out to other agencies to get them to buy into projects that he wanted to have in his district.”

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, whose district is in the Bronx, agreed with that assessment, and emphasized the socioeconomic implications of these reforms.  “I represent the 5th poorest district in the entire city and if you look at the allocations… [the] cost of speaking up on certain issues that differed with the previously speaker was penalized, and actually it wasn’t me who got penalized, it was the constituents.”

Dick Dadey, the Executive Director of the non-profit citizen’s Union, was positive about the proposed reforms. “Today’s proposed rules reform will do much to change the way in which the council operates.  It will be a much more democratically run…and allow members to be able to represent better their constituents, and result in more equitable distribution of funds for al the neighborhoods of the city as well as allow members to advocate and push for legislation that serves the needs of their districts.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio is known to be against discretionary item funding.  City Council Speaker Mark-Viverito disagrees.  “I’ve been a very, very strong a defender…of the discretionary allocations.  We see it as a reinvestment of taxpayer’s dollars in our districts.  These go to organizations that employ locally, that provide very grassroots community based services…so we’re going to continue to make that case, and that’s what’s going to be part of our conversation with the Mayor.”

Another public hearing about the rules reforms will be held on May 7th.






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Filed under City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Money


Published in City and State

There is nothing that quite stokes the passion of some City Council members than when representatives from CUNY are in the building.

The Council held a preliminary budget hearing on higher education on Friday, and with several CUNY graduates in the Council, the line of questioning took a more personal tone, complete with angst over rising tuition costs, and concern about programs currently facing the chopping block.

Inez Barron, Chair of the Committee of Higher Education, presided over the hearing.  “If CUNY had not been free, I would not have been able to go,” she said.  “So that’s my goal.  To continue to find ways to have free tuition.”  Each councilmember was given 5 minutes to question the main CUNY representatives, Vice Chancellors Matthew Sapienza and Iris Weinshall.

Vice Chancellor Sapienza explained that CUNY’s enrollment has increased by 10% since 2008, and provides education for approximately 270,000 degree-seeing students, and 248,000 continuing education students.  He juxtaposed this with the kind of funding that CUNY has been receiving over the past five years.  “Since fiscal year 2009, the state base aid rate for community colleges has decreased by almost 9.5%…mandatory costs – such as fringe benefits, energy, and contractual salary increments – have continued to increase annually.”

As part of the State’s higher education agreement in 2011, CUNY and SUNY were permitted to increase their tuition by $300 a year for five years.  Defending the university system’s increasing tuition, the CUNY Vice Chancellors emphasized that all the tuition money from students went directly back to the students.

“Between 1976 and 2006 every single time that tuition was increased, every single dollar of that increase went to fill budget shortfalls, and for thirty years our students did not get the benefit of one dollar of those tuition increases,” Sapienza stated. “Something that we fought for as a university was smaller but planned tuition increases.  So that students can plan for it, but more important, those dollars can be used to invest in our campuses…our students are feeling the benefit of those increases.”

When prompted about financial resources available to CUNY students, Sapienza and Weinshall explained that approximately 60 percent of CUNY undergraduates attend tuition free.  Along with the TAP program, Pell Grants, and enhancing the federal work study program, CUNY has carved out $10 million in tuition revenues for financial assistance to students who are at risk of not graduating.  That assistance extends to books, Sapienza explained.

“We set aside 2.5 million of that 10 million, and we purchased textbooks so that students can now go to our college libraries and take the textbook on loan for the semester,” he said.

Reductions to the ASAP program was of particular concern to the Council. The program focuses on low-income students who require remedial work.  Weinshall stated, “We actually are facing a reduction in the ASAP program, because the state legislature added 1.7 million for the current year. In the governor’s proposed budget for next year, that money is not included.  If it’s not restored, we’re going to have to scale back the number of seats we have in the ASAP program.”

Another program facing cuts is CUNY Prep in the Bronx. The principal, Jenny Ristenbatt, was on hand to testify on behalf of the school. Vice Chancellor Sapienza explained, “These are students 16 to 18 who have dropped out of high school.  It has been wonderfully successful.  Close to 80% of students who have taken the GED have passed the exam…and these are students who have been written off in terms of their possibilities.  And one other thing I would mention is that close to 50% of the students in this program are males, which is extraordinarily important.”  This echoed the sentiments recently expressed by President Obama.

“Well, we have to fight to keep this,” said Councilman James Vacca. “I will certainly advocate for that.”

Councilmember Fernando Cabrera, particularly empathized with CUNY’s financial struggles.  “The reason why you’re raising tuition is because the State and the City is not coming through for you.  You’re trying to fill the gap.”

Diplomatically, Sapienza replied, “We are grateful that the budget reductions after 2008 have stopped and things have stabilized.”

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Filed under Budget, Higher Education